After decades of manipulating artists, radio, and music fans, it seems safe to say that death has come to the corporate record labels. Variety reported last week that “overall music sales during the Christmas shopping season were down an astounding 21% from last year.” No industry can survive a drop like that, especially on the heels of a similarly terrible year and decade. Trouble for the big labels will continue to accelerate as big box stores like Best Buy and Walmart further cut the shelf space that they devote to CDs.
Expect to see the four major labels slashing their operations over the next few months. These labels will probably make a some last gasp moves: dramatic online music giveaways and desperate attempts to get artists to sign over their tour and merchandise revenue. But the trend towards decentralization, self-publishing, and direct artist-fan relationships is simply too strong. There will continue to be a role for online music stores and companies that offer promotional services for artists, but the days of labels owning musicians appears to finally be fading.